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Published on Saturday, April 15, 2000 in the New York Times
Nader Runs Again, This Time With Feeling
by James Dao

WASHINGTON, April 14 -- The students with purple hair, the graying academics with Jerry Garcia beards and the union organizers with their anti-W.T.O. buttons had crowded into a college auditorium in Minneapolis to hear some red-meat -- make that green-vegetable -- radicalism. And Ralph Nader, America's foremost anti-corporate curmudgeon, did not disappoint:

Global corporations are sucking the life out of small businesses and family farms. Pollution is poisoning our rivers and air. Inner-city schools and health clinics are crumbling. And while the nation corrodes, the rich are buying and selling politicians like baseball cards.

"Big business is on a collision course with American democracy, and American democracy has been losing," said Mr. Nader, who in his dark suit was the most conventional-looking person in the room.

The man who became famous by killing off a sporty but unstable little car called the Corvair some 35 years ago is at it again, running for president on the Green Party line.

But unlike his previous presidential run, in 1996, when he refused to raise money, spent less than $5,000 and attracted barely 1 percent of the vote, this time he is serious, Mr. Nader insists.

"I specifically said I wasn't going to campaign in '96," he said in an interview. "This is a campaign."

Mr. Nader is cranking up that campaign just in time to step onto the world stage this weekend, when tens of thousands of protesters descend on Washington to demonstrate against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Green Party affiliates from around the world are playing a major role in the protests, and Mr. Nader himself will address demonstrators near the White House on Sunday.

The goal of Mr. Nader's run is not to win, of course, but to get more than 5 percent of the vote, the number that would qualify him for millions in federal campaign matching funds that he says he would use to build the Green Party.

"If the Green Party breaks 5 percent, the Democratic Party won't be the same again," Mr. Nader, still irrepressibly dour and hauntingly hungry-looking at 66, said in reflecting on the prospect of undercutting the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and its president, Al From. "If you think Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council has a grip on the Democratic Party, wait and see what a significant and growing progressive third party can do."

Aides to Vice President Al Gore, the apparent Democratic nominee, say they are not losing sleep over a Nader challenge. Mr. Nader is not the most skillful of campaigners, and even many liberal allies question his ability to move voters. Further, the Green Party is better known for its internal squabbling than for its ability to run campaigns or raise money.

But Mr. Gore's yielding even a few percentage points to Mr. Nader would be damaging to the vice president if the election was tight. And a recent poll by the Zogby Group showed Mr. Nader receiving more support than Patrick J. Buchanan, the likely Reform Party nominee, 5 percent to 3 percent. The poll indicated that the vast majority of Mr. Nader's support came from Democrats and that he was doing particularly well in California, considered a vital state for Mr. Gore.

All of which suggests that an aggressive Nader campaign could entirely offset advantages Mr. Gore might gain from Mr. Buchanan's candidacy, which is expected to siphon votes from the apparent Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. Nader intends to remain a thorn in Mr. Gore's side by promoting causes that many liberals, large numbers of whom chose Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries, say the Clinton administration has lacked the will to see through: universal health care, the environment, campaign finance reform and an attack on urban poverty.

And unlike Mr. Bradley, Mr. Nader is a fierce opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, endearing him to traditionally Democratic union members who feel that the administration's free-trade policies have hurt American workers.

As evidence that this year will be different from 1996, Mr. Nader says he has hired 15 full-time campaign workers in Washington and will soon dispatch 10 others, perhaps former Bradley campaign organizers among them, to get the Green Party on the ballot in every state. (The party is already on the ballot in 13 states, including New York and California.)

He has also vowed to raise $5 million, and says he may get help from celebrities like Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and the Indigo Girls. His first major fund-raising event, in Washington tonight, drew 300 people, who paid $25 to $1,000 each, adding to the $210,000 or so that the candidate's aides said they had already raised.

But to get anywhere near 5 percent of the vote, Mr. Nader will have to overcome some big obstacles, not the least of which is the Green Party itself. The party is notoriously disorganized and divided.

Some members oppose any involvement in electoral politics; others are supporting another candidate, Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the rock group the Dead Kennedys.

And then there is Mr. Nader, who is the first to acknowledge that he is not the best campaigner. Gawky and prone to long speeches, he is also shy and painfully uncomfortable with asking people for their votes. When a Delta Air Lines worker stopped him in the Minneapolis airport last week and said, "I'm a big fan," all he could say in reply was "thanks."

"Campaigning takes a level of political ego I just don't have yet," he said after the man had sped off.

He is also notoriously private, refusing to tell even co-workers where he lives. (It is in an apartment he rents in the Dupont Circle section of Washington.) The only crumbs of biographical information he sprinkles into his hourlong speeches are passing references to the town of his birth, Winsted, Conn. Rarely does he mention that he is a son of Lebanese immigrants, that his father owned a restaurant, that he studied Chinese at Princeton and law at Harvard.

His secretiveness has spawned a host of dark theories among his critics. Some contend that he lives in a million-dollar town house here, not in the ill-furnished apartment of Nader lore. (Mr. Nader says the town house he has been spotted entering is his sister's.) They say that despite his seemingly penurious way of living, he is actually quite wealthy, that he purposely spent almost nothing on his 1996 campaign to skirt federal election laws, which require candidates who spend more than $5,000 to file reports disclosing their assets.

Mr. Nader says he will file a financial disclosure report next month. Despite the concerns he frequently voices about the dangers of too rapid an advance in technology, the report will show, he says, that he owns technology stocks. It will also disclose, he says, that he earned about $200,000 in speaking fees last year but gave half of it to charities. He says that most of the other half went toward "projects" and that he lives on about $25,000 a year.

Asked how so private a man could run for so public a job, Mr. Nader, a lifelong bachelor, replied: "When you work all the time, you don't have a problem in terms of private time. There is no private time."

Even among many on the left, Mr. Nader is not considered the dream candidate. In a recent essay in The Nation, Katha Pollitt complained that his 1996 campaign had focused too much on trade issues, to the exclusion of matters like race relations, health care, and gay and abortion rights.

"The idea of progressives cranking up an organization, raising funds, fomenting energy and enthusiasm on behalf of this doomed project," Ms. Pollitt wrote, "well, it's just too depressing. If working on Nader's campaign is the best way progressives can spend the next eight months, it's time to hire a hearse and lie down in it."

Mr. Nader, who says he is running partly at the behest of Green Party leaders, replied, "I think she ran out of material that week."

Still, his platform seems to reflect some of the criticisms of progressives like Ms. Pollitt. At the top is universal health care, followed by an antipoverty program built heavily on consumer-protection ideas, including provisions against loan discrimination by banks, high auto insurance rates and landlord abuses.

"Corporate welfare," one of his favorite issues, will also be front and center: he will campaign against tax breaks and government subsidies that allow big companies "to privatize profits and socialize risk."

And, in an effort to win support from social conservatives, he plans to attack big media corporations, saying they exploit children with racy programming and aggressive marketing practices.

Although he is counting on the anti-globalization protests this weekend to raise his national profile, Mr. Nader says his best hope for gaining attention would be to squeeze between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in televised debates.

The commission that determines presidential debate participants has said a candidate must be receiving 15 percent in national polls to be included. Mr. Nader contends that the threshold is ridiculously high, and hopes to unite with Mr. Buchanan to protest it.

And if he prevails, he says, he will pose in those debates the kind of questions that will spark interest in his campaign.

"Candidates are asked, 'What is your position on welfare, what is your position on crime?' " Mr. Nader said. "That's not the right question. It needs an adjective: 'What is your position on corporate welfare? What is your position on corporate crime?' We're going to open this up. We're going to provide adjectives to these issues."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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